26 June 2012

Washington County, Colorado Burning

A blaze covering more than 38,000 acres suddenly sprang into being yesterday in rural Washington County, Colorado, the ancestral home of the Colorado branch of the Willeke family (my somewhat distant relations) who hail from Akron, which is in a different part of the Eastern Plains county than the place where the fire is right now.  It is one of a large number of major wildfires burning across the state.

No injuries or deaths are reported and 11 structures were destroyed, nine of which were in the crossroads town of Last Chance.  It is 95% contained now, but was almost instantly the fourth largest wildfire in Colorado history.  It has caused widespread utility outages and road closures in the county.

UPDATE: The Last Chance fire has been 100% contained this morning and ultimately burned 45,000 acres, making it the fourth largest in Colorado history by acres burned (after the 2002 Hayman Fire between Denver and Colorado Springs, the 2012 High Park Fire near Fort Collins that is still burning, and the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire near Durango).  The Last Chance Fire was caused by sparks from a car that had a flat tire.  At least four of the structures burned in Last Chance were homes.  A fire truck was also destroyed in the blaze that more than one hundred people responded to in order to fight it. 

Residents of Last Chance (at the intersection of Colorado 71 and Colorado 36) and nearby Woodrow were evacuated to a Red Cross Shelter at Akron High School.  Evacation orders have now been lifted.

There are other major active wildfires to the North and South of Boulder, near Manitou Springs (the Waldo Canyon Fire), west of Durango (the Weber fire) and at several other locations around the state.  The High Park fire has now burned 87,250 acres (in addition to more than 10,000 acres of land continguous to it from another fire earlier this year and one in April of 2011).

Exceptionally hot, dry, windy conditions in a below average rainfall and snowcap year are mostly to blame for the fires, with the large supply of pine beatle infested dead wood in the mountains also fueling the fires in the mountains.  The increased presence of people in flamable wilderness areas is also a factor, but fires are a natural part of both Western forest and the Great Plains environment.  the High Park fire was triggered by lightning and almost all of the others were human activity played a part were not arsons or even cases of gross negligence, but were instead caused by acts that would be trivial were it not for the fact that vulnerability to wildfires is at its peak right now in wild areas across the state.

Climate trends are also quite plausibly at work.  There more complete Denver Post listing of historic wildfires in the state shows that all but two of the 32 biggest fires in Colorado history have taken place since 1999 - #7 was the 1879 Lime Creek Fire in the San Juan National Forest that burned 26,000 acres, #14 was the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire in Jefferson County, that burned 12,000 acres.  Eight of the top 32 were in 2012, fourteen were in 2002, four were in 2000, one was in 2010 and one was in 2003.

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